Anyone who minds about piracy is full of sh*t. Anyone who pirates your game wasn't going to buy it anyway! - Warren Spector
The same pirates who unleashed Tiger Woods 2008 on the illegal torrent scene before the game hit shelves have failed to do the same for one of the strongest contenders for 2007 game of the year. After over a week to hammer away at the copy protection, the PC version of Bioshock has yet to be cracked. The reasons why have stirred up old controversies and revealed what may be the beginning of the end for casual online piracy.
You may recall when Starforce, a copy protection scheme detested by paying customers and pirates alike, enjoyed a brief period in where it seemed like every PC game coming out of Europe was saddled with the invasive, unstable copy protection. The aptly named "Boycott Starforce" website cataloged problems caused by the software which primarily stemmed from the fact that Starforce installed a device driver on the customer's computer that slowly degraded system performance until it rendered the CD drive functionally useless. This also prevented games from loading and according to the site, caused catastrophic system crashes.
Even members of the Starforce team admitted the system was far from perfect. "The purpose of copy protection is not making the game uncrackable – it is impossible. The main purpose is to delay the release of the cracked version," said JM, a Starforce admin on the official forums. "After several months of sales even we recommend the publishers to release patches that remove the copy protection just to make the game play more comfortable to the customers."
If the choice is either copy protection that is so invasive legitimate customers spark online revolts, or so easy anyone can snatch your game with a few clicks on their favorite torrent site, what is a publisher to do?
2K Games has set a new precedent by requiring the user to activate their game online before allowing them to play. Unlike a Windows Vista or XP install, you can't pick up the phone to activate your key. Never have we seen a publisher require this extra step for a single-player only title. It's assumed in multiplayer games like Battlefield 2 or World of Warcraft that you aren't going to get around needing to login to a central server and verify legitimate CD key before you can play. Until now, we were also safe in assuming we could skip that step for a game that wouldn't otherwise require a net connection at all.
This added activation step has seemingly frozen game-cracking pirates in their tracks. But before the corks cleared the Champaign bottles at 2K Games, user complaints began flooding in regarding the two activations limit. Customers who had to reinstall the game after issues or upgrades were angry at the prospect of being locked out from a game they own. While uninstalling was supposed to add one activation back, it wasn't working. 2K has since come forward and increased the activations to five per copy, and promised a "revoke activation" tool to remove a computer's clearance to play the game so it can be transferred to another.
The publisher seems to have taken a "better to ask for forgiveness" approach and gradually given the user back some measure of control over their own software. The precedent will remain, however. A big budget, single-player PC game has required activation and by all accounts, it's working. The game is flying off shelves, the reviews are stellar and reports of Starforce levels of computer issues have been minimal so far.
This may be the first real strike against pirates in some time that actually slows them down without completely alienating paying customers. Even if they were to crack the game today, the damage has already been done. The lure of getting the game first has come and gone, leaving casual pirates who enjoy downloading games from their favorite sites left choosing between patience and spending their money. Even the most hardcore, savvy game pirates have little recourse short of buying the game or, oddly enough, modifying their Xbox 360. In an interesting switch, the Xbox 360 version of Bioshock was hacked and made available for download on major torrent sites on release day.
What's significant here is that a console version has been cracked while the PC version remains elusive. The more examples we see of PC games slowing down piracy efforts significantly, the more likely publishers are to take a second look at the PC as a safe, viable platform to sell to. Even though adding complexity to the install and game launching process increases the chance of problems, ensuring that a majority of players paid for the privilege is probably worth the extra trouble.
On the other hand, requiring more hoops to jump through always runs the risk of alienating customers and causing the sort of coding arms race that brought us "solutions" like Starforce. History would suggest that this will eventually be the case; few schemes can withstand the onslaught of hundreds of programmers fighting to crack your game for fun and profit. Once that happens we're right back to square one and legitimate customers will pay the price in money spent and time wasted trying to make things work.
The question remains the same for gamers. How much control are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of a healthy gaming market? Even console makers are forcing users to consider this with their handling of digital downloads. Sony has already made a move to prevent users from downloading Warhawk to multiple machines as a way of sharing the game by locking it to the PSN account that made the purchase. The collateral damage in this case are friends and family who share the same console and want to play on their own account. The Xbox 360 also has issues with DRM, replacements and multiple users accessing content.
It's a mess. All we can say for sure right now is that online activation is working for Bioshock and it's only the beginning.
- Shawn Andrich